The Perils and Promise of Programmatic Print
Recent news that Time Inc. is expanding its “programmatic print” experiment set hearts aflutter among many magazine publishers.
Does Time’s expansion of the program mean the magazine industry has finally found the magic potion that will stanch the steady outflow of print advertising?
It ain’t that simple. Publishers face huge technological barriers in translating programmatic methods to the ink-on-paper world. Yes, in theory, every copy of a magazine could have a different set of highly targeted ads purchased programmatically shortly before the magazine went to press. But the cost would be astronomical. Even adding a couple dozen sections targeted to different groups would add significant printing, binding, and perhaps postage costs.
Time’s recently expanded “Print Programmatic 2.0” can hardly even be called programmatic. It’s a far cry from the algorithmically purchased, laser-targeted ads that have taken consumer-oriented web sites by storm. But it’s still a ground-breaking effort that points out new opportunities for magazine publishers and should cause us to question some of our standard business practices.
I used to think of programmatic as a fancy name for digital remnant ads. But it’s come of age since its early days of tacky, el cheapo come-ons for low mortgage rates and ways to lose belly fat. Now it’s an automated process for buying ads targeted to website visitors based on in-depth data about their demographics, interests, and recent web searches.
If 100 people simultaneously view the same ad position on the same web page, they may each see a different ad -- bid on and purchased in the blink of an eye at widely varying prices. A recent visitor to a car-buying site may see an ad for a local car dealer. Someone who left an unpurchased item in her shopping cart at an online store might find that site “stalking” with a promotion for that same item. (The tactic is called “retargeting.”) A person’s who’s been researching mesothelioma on the web may be targeted by trial lawyers willing to pay a far higher CPM than is typically paid for premium display ads.
Print Programmatic 2.0 enables advertisers to target ads to about 18 demographic or interest-based groups – such as Moms, Tech Savvy, Men, Luxury – across 18 different Time Inc. magazines. Each group has an estimated audience of 15 million to 46 million.
“Buyers don't know in which magazines their ads will run, only that they will likely appear among the titles in the audience segment,” Ad Age explains.
“Time Inc., on its end, fulfills audience buys for segments such as ‘pet lovers’ by placing ads across magazines that overindex in the category” based on consumer surveys, Ad Exchanger tells us.
In other words, someone who sees a “pet lover” print ad is looking at a magazine whose readers are more likely than the average magazine reader to own a pet. Not exactly pinpoint targeting.
By contrast, a programmatic web ad for the same brand would be shown only to people whose recent web activity marked them as almost certain to be pet owners. It might be further targeted to, for example, young female cat owners, with especially high bids for women who recently bought pet supplies online.
But what’s significant about Print Programmatic 2.0 is what it has in common with programmatically purchased digital advertising. Like the lack of paperwork or bureaucracy: The buyer simply places an order via an online marketplace. That has reportedly helped attract business from ad buyers who had never previously bought print.
The program also challenges the age-old notion of placing print ads near the right content in the right publication. Instead, like its digital cousin, Print Programmatic 2.0 targets based on the consumer, not the adjacent content or the publishing brand. And note the promise of reaching certain “audiences” – a refreshing departure from print’s guarantees based on “circulation” or “ratebase.”
Time has also indicated that it’s not stopping at 2.0. Nor is it trying to corner the market on programmatic print. Andy Blau, a senior VP at Time Inc., told the trade association FIPP:
“We’re using the same technology as the digital buyers and it’s a relatively simple move – so we’re also sharing this information with other publishers, because if there is an opportunity for print to evolve in this way and for others to get on board, there will be much more opportunity for everyone.”
Fellow publishers would do well to start with a simple question: Now that Time has shown the way, can we attract new advertisers by making it easier and simpler to buy print ads?